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Federal Proposals Could Affect The Northwest’s Amtrak Train Service

Stephen DeVight/WSDOT
The Amtrak Cascades train cruising by the Puget Sound waterfront in Edmonds, Washington.

Passenger trains are one of the more environmentally-friendly ways of moving people between cities. With that in mind, Oregon and Washington have invested nearly a billion dollars in operating and improving the Amtrak Cascades rail line since it was launched in 1993. The line runs between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, Canada.

Now, a federal agency is floating proposals that opponents say could make the Northwest’s main passenger rail line run slower, later and less reliably. 

Since Amtrak was formed in 1971, the railroad companies that own the track on which most Amtrak trains run have been required by law to give “preference” to passenger trains over the railroad’s own freight traffic.

But now, the Surface Transportation Board in Washington, DC says that doesn’t necessarily mean Amtrak trains always get to go before freight trains. That interpretation doesn’t cut any ice with Representative Peter DeFazio.

“Congress was quite clear that we wanted preference for Amtrak to help improve their performance over freight,” DeFazio says.

The Democrat from Oregon’s Fourth District was among the lawmakers who wrote a bill in 2008 intended to deal with Amtrak’s widespread on-time performance problems. DeFazio says allowing Amtrak trains to go before freight trains was exactly what Congress intended.

“We were not saying, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe every once in a while a slow freight will use a siding for Amtrak, but most of the time they’ll just keep doing what they’re doing.’”

The other proposal by the Surface Transportation Board would measure on-time performance at the beginning and end of a rail line. For the Amtrak Cascades, that means most stops -- including major cities such as Seattle and Portland – could be considered “intermediate” stops and wouldn’t be factored in. Likewise with the Amtrak Coast Starlight line, that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles.

Bob Melbo, state rail planner for the Oregon Department of Transportation, says that approach could understate the number of late trains.

“The on-time performance at all the stations on a train’s route whether they be the end point or the intermediate points should be accorded equal weight,” Melbo says. “Because if your destination is at one of the intermediate points, the performance of the train at that point is what’s important to you.”

On the Cascades route, close to half of all passengers get off at intermediate stations.

Elected officials from across the country have weighed in on the STB proposals. Nearly all oppose them, saying anything that makes it easier for railroads to give their freight operations a boost at the expense of Amtrak trains would cause passenger service to suffer.

ODOT’s Bob Melbo says Governor Kate Brown sent a letter expressing her concerns about the proposals.

“She said passenger trains should run reliably on time, host railroads must give passenger trains preference over freight and the host carriers have the responsibility to provide facilities and operating practices to minimize delays to passenger trains”

The mayors of Portland, Eugene, Albany and Salem wrote to express their disapproval, as well.

Groups that support passenger rail have also raised concerns that more delays could sour the public on inter-city trains. Bruce Agnew is with the Cascadia Academy, a transportation policy and research center in Seattle.

“Reliability is critical to ridership,” he says. “And if there’s anything done to lessen the reliability of the service between cities, then that’s going to reduce ridership”

But the railroad industry says these fears are overblown. In fact, the Association of American Railroads says giving Amtrak trains absolute preference over freight would lead to what it calls “harmful and irrational results.” The group says it would add to congestion in the system and create even greater delays for both passenger and freight trains.

The industry also maintains that Amtrak’s on-time performance problems are caused more by Amtrak’s unrealistic schedules than by railroads failing to give passenger trains preference. Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the railroad association, says the industry advocates a balanced approach.

“This means trying to find that right transportation mix of serving the needs of passenger rail while insuring the freight rail industry is continuing to meet the shipping requirements of their customers and moving the country’s economy,” he says.

But Representative Peter DeFazio doesn’t buy it. If the proposals are approved, he says ...

“I think you’re going to standing in the station watching a few more freight trains go by before your Amtrak arrives and it’s going to be even further behind schedule.”

The Surface Transportation Board has closed comment on the two proposals. Officials have no estimate of when decisions might be reached.


Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.